by Padraic Gilligan, Vice President, Industry Relations, MCI and Vice President, Destination Services, Ovation Global DMC
Paris has featured, like bookends, at either end of my travel schedule in 2012. On both occasions, in January and November, the city yielded up that timeless sense of refined urban living, unique to great cities like Paris, London and Rome. En route to the meeting at Rue Chauchat you pass bars, cafes, restaurants and a myriad of tiny shops and boutiques with traditional hard wood fronts and beautifully created window displays. Here you’re miles away from the colonising bland homogeneity of global brands that have left so many cities bereft of retail uniqueness and diversity. These shopkeepers don’t follow franchise manuals and brand style books but infuse everything they do with fierce pride, deep passion and flawless style.
A Walk in the City
When our meeting concludes I insist on walking to my hotel, the iconic Le Meridien Etoile. My colleague Capucine, who knows this vast city like it’s a tiny village, sketches out a route for me that takes me down Boulevard Haussman through the 7th arrondissement to where Avenue des Terns intersects with Porte Maillot, the location of my hotel. It’s a truly beguiling walk that combines wide elegant boulevards with narrow crowded lane-ways punctuated now and again by statement buildings such as Baltard’s Church of Saint Augustine and that great hidden gem, the Jacquemart – Andre Museum, currently hosting an exhibition of works by the Venetians Canaletto and Guardi. Boulevard Haussman then becomes Avenue de Friedland and, suddenly, there ahead of you, is an oblique view of the Arc de Triomphe silhouetted against the half -light of a late November sky.
Le Meridien Etoile, Paris
Originally built in the early 70s as the flagship property of the nascent Air France hotel chain, Le Meridien Etoile is now part of global chain Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide. With over 1000 rooms and a perfect location adjacent to the Palais de Congres, this 4 star property offers US-style big box meetings and events solutions not frequently found in Europe. It also offers a fascinating case study in brand rehabilitation and positioning under the direction of Eva Ziegler, Global Brand Leader at Starwood for Le Meridien and the ultra-cool, W (recently opened in Paris to great acclaim).
Brand: The Theory
I found a fascinating interview with Ziegler on Elite Traveller in which she outlines the personality profile of the Le Meridien guest:
(The) Le Meridien audience is composed of aspirational, creative minds … curious and eager to learn something new in life. They are well-informed, modern people who look for the authentic, the engaging and the credible …
She goes on to outline the key steps in the brand’s guest experience from arrival at the door of the hotel:
… we have four different arrival elements. First, the door is a “transitional portal” into the new world of Le Meridien. Guests aren’t just walking through a door, but leaving their routine … At check-in, the key card is no longer a piece of plastic, but …a collectible object dedicated to art, and it opens their hotel room as well as a cultural center in the destination. Within elevators, elements are introduced to transform a mundane ride into a sound experience, featuring artists’ soundtracks of lost sounds—such as a forest, running horses, a market or water …
Brilliant! Bring me immediately to the “transitional portal” and let me frolic and play in this “new world” that recognises me for the “creative, well informed” person that I am with my sharp eye for fine art and my highly cultured coffee palate. (Art and Coffee are key aspects of the new brand, apparently). So is this what I experience as I eagerly transport myself through the magic door from city streets to anticipated hotel treats?
Brand: the Experience
Well, not entirely! There’s nothing particularly special or impactful about the “award winning lobby experience” as I enter except for the fact that the check-in area is not immediately visible. This causes a frisson of momentary anxiety in my mind but then I spot it by the crowd waiting in line to check-in. I stand in the orderly line and wait my turn expecting some sensory experience to envelop me but instead I’m gripped by an growing sense of frustration as the minutes slowly unwind.
When it eventually takes place, the check-in process is polite but perfunctory and my key card is presented in a small wallet without comment (it might have been nice to explain whose artistic work is featured on it). The ride to the 7th floor in a crowed elevator includes no “sound experience” other than the 2 Northern Italians from Deloitte discussing the aesthetic appeal of their French female counterpart.
The guest room is small (having been in LA the previous week it seems miniscule!) but perfectly formed and I do like the muted colour scheme. The in-room “art” experience includes an attractive glass panel featuring a Paris scene in sepia tones and an interesting “LED-ART” panel which you need instructions to understand. There’s also some print collateral on the “UNLOCK ART” initiative and vouchers for free entrance to the Palais de Tokyo and free espresso at the Jazz Club Etoile (bizarrely valid ONLY after 10:30AM). There’s also an attractive brochure on “A Photographer’s Journey” a joint project of Le Meridien and Air France.
However, my first priority is to get on-line and my appreciation for the artistic experience in the room evaporates with the raging anger of being charged €12 per device for broadband. The second priority is to shower and freshen up prior to my dinner appointment but this too ends in frustration as I try to select the water temperature from shower controls located behind and directly underneath the shower head. In the shower there is no shelf for shampoo and no bathrobe is supplied. A mid-sleep trip to the lavatory confirms the absence of muted floor lighting and the presence of hard sharp corners against which small toes experience big pain.
Brand: the Lesson
So what lesson do I extrapolate from all of this? In the nature/nurture debate as applied to brands I’m now siding with nature. I believe that brands are born and then evolve into what they are. Paris has been evolving over centuries to become the living, breathing vibrant brand that it is today. Eva Ziegler has created an exciting, well articulated brand proposition for Le Meridien but it has not yet become this brand. It hasn’t yet found its soul. Its own people need to be more imbued with the vision, mission and values of the brand and the basic product and service infrastructure needs to match the expectations of contemporary business guests. Once this is in place the unique brand attributes can start to sparkle and shine.
Padraic Gilligan is Vice President of Industry Relations at MCI and Vice President of Ovation Global DMC, MCI destination services division.